Who Is the True Master of Suspense?

Comparing Henri-Georges Clouzot’s ‘Les Diaboliques’ to Alfred Hitchcock’s ‘Psycho’ in a suspense-off.
Diabolique Clouzot
By  · Published on February 16th, 2017

In Wages of Fear, the character Dick declares, “you don’t know what fear is. But you’ll see. It’s catching. It’s catching like smallpox. And once you get it, it’s for life.” The film’s director, Henri-Georges Clouzot, clearly applied Dick’s approach to fear in his reality. During the mid-1930s Clouzot spent nearly five years in a sanatorium due to Tuberculosis, a period which he described as his schooling in humanity:

“I owe it all to the sanatorium. It was my school. While resident there I saw how human beings worked.”

Clouzot’s fear from being both surrounded by and fraught with death and mortality stayed with him for the rest of his life. And in his filmography, it’s clear he used cinema as a vessel to explore and control this fear. There’s the dark comedy L’assassin habite au 21 that follows an Inspector as he hunts down the titular murderer; Le Corbeau sees violence evoked through poisoned letters; and the post-World War II depiction of France in Manon depicts Clouzot’s sense of urgency at needing to portray some form of the reality of life in France during the end of the Nazi Occupation, unlike most other directors of the time.

It’s in Clouzot’s 1955 Les Diaboliques (sometimes referred to as simply Diabolique) where the director’s morbid fascination with sickness, death, and Machiavellian characters coalesce to form his best work. The film follows friends and co-workers Christina Delassalle (Véra Clouzot) and Nicole Horner (Simone Signoret) as they plot to murder Delassalle’s abusive and tyrannical husband, Michel (Paul Meurisse). And it’s Les Diaboliques that influenced another great director of the thriller genre that Clouzot was so fluent in, Alfred Hitchcock.

Hitchcock’s Psycho, arriving five years after Les Diaboliques in 1960, has been described as having “changed cinema” and as being an “immortal” film. Pyscho’s cultural impact cannot be ignored; the film has been reborn in contemporary works such as The Simpsons and A&E’s Bates Motel. Even if a person hasn’t seen Psycho, they’re more than likely to be aware of when the most famous 45 seconds in cinema history are being referenced, be it through the infamous, string-heavy score by Bernard Herrmann or the visual metaphor of Marion Crane’s (Janet Leigh) blood pouring down a drain, fading into the life pouring from her eyes.

Meanwhile, both Les Diaboliques and its director have mostly been forgotten in contemporary culture, with the very least of their omission from history being exemplified in their lack of pop culture references that are so intrinsic to Pyscho’s long-lasting history. Whilst there are box sets of Hitchock’s films where the name of the director is larger than the titles of his films being released and re-released alongside a constant stream of new books on him, Clouzot’s legacy seems to be fading in the 21st century. While Clouzot has four Criterion restorations (Hitchcock has ten) and had a small resurrection with the 2009 documentary named after Clouzot’s own abandoned film, Serge Bromberg and Ruxandra Medrea’s Henri-Georges Clouzot’s Inferno, the lack of recognition and works on the director and his films remains somewhat unjust.

The reason for the lack of conversation around Clouzot’s work is because mainstream, contemporary cinema’s conversation around classic thrillers and/or mysteries remains centered on who audiences know most of: Hitchcock. By adhering to the one-sided narrative of Hitchcock being the master of suspense and a starting point for how thriller genre films are executed, not only are audiences being deprived of innovative work that was otherwise not well-known, but the history of film is tainted with opinion rather than truth. Moreover, it’s not only unfair for Clouzot, but Hitchcock, too: rather than being remembered as a multi-faceted director who made both mistakes and great choices, he’s instead turned into a 2-dimensional character that is easy to digest, something that goes against who he was as a filmmaker and his films themselves.

The similarities between Clouzot and Hitchcock do not end with their portrayals (or lack of) in history, with one example being how both directors were monstre sacrés (a public figure who is distanced from the public due to their strange characteristics, Jean Cocteau wrote a play on these very figures) to their female leads. However, these similarities are often explored through Clouzot’s resemblance to Hitchcock rather than vice versa. While Clouzot was a fan of Hitchcock and respected comparisons of his work to his contemporary, the way in which they were and still are executed ‐ for example calling Clouzot the French Hitchcock, much like Isabelle Huppert has been coined the French Meryl Streep ‐ leaves a sense of disregard for just how impactful Clouzot’s work has been on not just Hitchcock, but cinema in general. It’s in the influence Les Diaboliques has on Psycho, and still has (unknowingly or not) on the thriller genre, where this is most realized.

One of the most obvious yet easily missed similarities between Les Diaboliques and Psycho ‐ along with an array of other Hitchcock and thriller genre films ‐ is the looming, dark house. In the BFI’s Compendium Gothic: The Dark Heart of Film, Kim Newman describes how the Gothic genre is “crowded” with old, dark houses that exist in and have been inspired by the genre. According to Newman, these buildings are “more than architecture, inhabited by desperate characters, full of secret passageways and bricked-up rooms, haunted by spectres and guilts.” In Hitchcock’s earlier films, for example, his adaptation of Daphne du Maurier’s Gothic novel Rebecca of the same name (released in 1940), the Gothic house ‐ or in this case, mansion ‐ becomes a character itself. Rebecca’s mansion becomes both a physical obstacle which Joan Fontaine’s nameless Mrs. de Winter has to battle with (note her height compared to the doorknobs, shrinking her to a child’s role) as well as a spectre, or ghost, of the titular, enigmatic character herself, who was the first wife before Fontaine’s de Winter.

In Psycho, however, the role of the Gothic mansion changes, and it’s no doubt inspired by the externalized psychology of Les Diaboliques’ changing locations between the boarding school Christina Delassalle owns and Nicole Horner’s apartment building in a town away from the school. Delassalle’s anxiety and heart condition are bound up in the boarding school, with the familiarity and routine of the school repressing her illness. Yet the important thing here is that it is repressing, not stopping. Through Clouzot’s close-ups of Delassalle’s face and long, unedited shots, the director builds the suspense up to Delassalle’s escape.

Once Delassalle leaves the school her condition deteriorates, with her coughing and lightheadness worsening once she arrives at Horner’s apartment. Through the buildup in tension of Delassalle’s illness, Clouzot is representing two things. The first is the foreshadowing that freedom may not be the end result for Delassalle, with her illness worsening the further she commits to the plan. The second is that Delassalle’s illness is a physical manifestation for the suspense and manipulation Clouzot is creating for the audience. What Delassalle’s illness shows is that, really, she has never left the oppression of her husband, nor the claustrophobia of the school. Like the ethos of fear Dick presents in Wages of Fear mentioned at the beginning of this article, Delassalle’s fear, like her illness, is stuck with her for life.

As one critic says, the monster is “within”: the monster is not the house itself, but instead has always been inside of it. Clouzot uses the houses and interior settings of Les Diaboliques in order to portray the turmoil and psyche of his characters’ minds, ensuring the viewer is experiencing the film rather than watching the hand of Clouzot manipulate the audience. The windows of Delassalle’s boarding school frame its characters, externalizing the claustrophobia of Delassalle’s mind into physicality. Clouzot places emphasis on the school’s doors and windows, with them often being open as if to contrast with Delassalle’s increasing claustrophobia. By the “drawn-out, mostly silent finale — a terrifying transit between rooms and corridors,” it’s clear Clouzot’s intention in building up the juxtaposition of open windows and doors with the self-contained mental world of Delassalle is to create a sense of liminality.

The shadows that haunt Delassalle while she is both asleep and awake in this final scene emphasize the unsettling of the audience, and the pressure that is released through Clouzot’s big reveal from his “masterful handling of ‘restricted narrative’” prove Les Diaboliques’ ability to successfully trick the audience without hindering the narrative. Moreover, the ending (which will not be revealed here for the thrill of potential viewers), reinstates the supernatural quality that’s present throughout the film, satisfying audiences by not pandering to them but giving them what they deserve.

Meanwhile, Psycho’s house (which was referenced in another The Simpsons episode) replicates Les Diaboliques just from its function alone. Both the boarding school of Les Diaboliques and Bates Motel function to serve the public, acting as permanent as well as temporary homes. In places where there should be a constant sense of movement and journeys, there is an overriding decay present as characters meet their fateful ends. It’s important to remember that Psycho is one of the first of Hitchcock’s films that isn’t dazzlingly beautiful or expensive. Instead, it presents itself in an almost realist manner with its small (for Hitchcock) budget and black-and-white film, directly contrasting with how nothing in Hitchcock’s world is as simple as being split between the two colors.

This devolution from the luxurious to the visceral is another technique witnessed in Les Diaboliques, and through Clouzot’s film’s purposeful realist nature, even more of its influence on Hitchcock can be found. The lack of dialogue towards both films’ endings connote the placement of the viewer in reality, with the camera working as the perspective through which this reality takes place. Both films stay in the perspectives of their central female figures until each of their revelations, swapping points of view afterwards to the characters that live in darkness. Hitchcock author Paul Duncan has written that the majority of Hitchcock’s peers worked in the third person, while Hitchcock’s first-person camera is, according to Duncan, “the most copied aspect of Hitchcock’s movies.” But, like Les Diaboliques’s killing off of one of its main characters came before Psycho, so did the moments of first-person camera perspective.

However, Clouzot uses these moments in order to draw the viewer into the film and the realism presented within it, while Hitchcock uses them to his advantage as a director. As he states in the classic Hitchcock/Truffaut novel-length interview, “I was directing the viewers. […] You might say I was playing them, like an organ.” Despite the lack of budget for Psycho, Hitchcock remains faithful to his ability to manipulate and entertain the audience, a striking difference to the critique Clouzot received in terms of his “unsparingly dark and unglamorous vision of a fallen world.”

Hitchcock’s inspiration from Les Diaboliques can be seen in almost every aspect of the film, for example, the moment Marion is stopped by police mirroring the car journeys of Delassale and Horner, or, more crucially, both murders taking place in the bathroom with similar drain shots being used. Most important, however, is the fact that both directors used their position to break the fourth wall and talk to their audience. Clouzot did this first through both his film’s promotion in France and by using a screen card at the end of Les Diaboliques pleading with his viewers to not reveal the ending. Hitchcock copied this, talking to his audience in adverts for Psycho.

The films have differences in their similarities, for example, the lack of music in Les Diaboliques against Psycho’s infamous score, Clouzot’s lack of recognition in shaping how suspense is crafted on film is not true to film history. And it’s Clouzot’s work, with its realism, impatient anti-heroes that are “human, all too human,” and depiction of fear that serves to show he is the true master of suspense. He not only creates it (suspense) in a fictional universe but channels his own fear within him from the internal to the external. What both directors realize equally, however, is the importance of sustaining suspense.

“Do not be evil! Do not destroy the interest that could take your friends to this film. Do not tell them what you saw. Thank you.”

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Freelance writer based in the UK.